Sunday, July 9, 2017

Book Review - In Search of the Lost Chord

It has been said that history is written by the winners, but one massive exception to that rule is the hagiography associated with the hippie movement of the 1960s. And I do not say that lightly — as someone who followed the Grateful Dead in the 80s and 90s and believes in social justice and equality — the idea that peaceniks were a failure is not a conclusion I come to lightly or happily, but in reading Danny Goldberg’s In Search of The Lost Chord a gauzy, Pollyanna-ish remembering of the 1967 Summer of Love,  much of the falsity of what we have come to think of and know about that time in our country’s history is exposed as more pipe dream than reality. 

The saying “If you remember the 60s, you probably weren’t there,” is a ha-ha shorthand for an era of peace, love, and lots of drugs, but the goals of the movement - ending the Vietnam War while striving for social, racial, and gender equality - have a shaky track record. Goldberg has his rose-colored glasses firmly in place and as a 101-level survey of the time when our country metaphorically went from black and white to technicolor, when the Beatles went from lovable mop tops to auteurs who created Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, and the promise of JFK dissolved in the rice fields of Southeast Asia, the reader is well-served. 

Goldberg has all kinds of interesting little nuggets about the musicians, intellectuals, and scenes spread throughout the country and across the pond into London that formed the backbone of the hippie aesthetic. The people and their mission were both loosely affiliated and at times at odds with one another (the battle between San Francisco bands who eyed L.A.-based producers of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival with antipathy is nicely sketched) and the push and pull between them is palpable. There is struggle for authenticity, of leadership (or if there should even be leadership), and defining goals and objectives that help explain why “the hippie idea” quickly became a spent force.

Even as the embryonic stage of the movement was gathering force, its limitations were already being exposed. In early 1967, hippie leaders convened in San Francisco, debating, among other things, what it meant to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” The author of that quote, Timothy Leary, was challenged by the beat poet and nascent hippie icon Allen Ginsburg, who asked: “what can I drop out of?” Leary retorted, “Your teaching at Cal (the University of California-Berkeley).” Ginsburg demurred, stating simply, “But I need the money.” And while Leary was wildly off base when he predicted deer would graze in New York City within 40 years, he was unintentionally spot on when he observed that “If Pepsi-Cola can be marketed around the world, so can hippie ideas.” The only thing he was missing was the fact that it would be used by Coca-Cola and not Pepsi-Cola in service of selling the soda not the ideas.  

Ultimately, many of the broad societal goals the hippies sought to achieve were unrealized. The massive rallies against the Vietnam War failed to end it; indeed, the war escalated and expanded into other countries after the protest movement gained speed. Far from being repudiated, Nixon tapped into the “silent majority” of Americans to win the Presidency in 1968 and one of the largest landslide reelections four years later. 

In the inner cities, from Watts in 1965 to Newark in 1967 and other cities in between and beyond, rioting exacerbated white flight to the suburbs, resulting in de facto segregation that would last for decades. Indeed, comments Goldberg discusses from a report issued by the Kerner Commission (a group commissioned by LBJ to study the underlying causes of these urban riots)  in 1968 could have just as easily been written today. Goldberg notes, “the main conclusion was that the riots resulted from black frustration at the lack of economic opportunity” and recommended things like “more diversity on police forces, stronger employment programs, and the creation of housing opportunities in the suburbs . . .” Sound familiar? 

Gender equality would make important advances with the passage of Title IX and a dawning awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, but the Equal Rights Amendment ran aground in the late 1970s while equal pay and fiery debates between women who opt for careers over home making have stoked many a book, thought piece, and online battle five decades after seminal works by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem reached a mass audience. 

But Goldberg has little time to consider the shortcomings of the movement, he is too busy ruminating on his own experiences and that is understandable. An era that coined the term “free love” and had reporters avoiding drinks offered to them for fear they were dosed with LSD was surely a good time, but the lament that the “chord” was lost is overwrought. As Joan Didion is quoted as saying at the time, “we were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a vacuum.” 

What we are left with is a Madison Avenue-invented nostalgia that attempts to short hand the hippie movement via tie-dye t-shirts and VW buses, fossilized classic rock acts and advertisements that take what were once clarion calls for rebellion that are now used in service of selling investment accounts and Cadillacs. Of course, this should not be surprising, the ideals that animated Baby Boomers in the late 1960s transformed into a “greed is good” ethos by the time they hit their 30s and 40s. Indeed, once in power, what defines the Baby Boomer generation is a massive redistribution of wealth upward at the same time massive borrowing has taken place to finance it. Having railed against the establishment, Boomers not only became the establishment, but looted the bank and will leave the rest of us to pay the bill. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

This Is Not How A Presidency Ends

When Frank Rich was at the New York Times he was the best columnist in America. Now that he is at New York magazine, he is the best long form essayist in America. He is a superior writer whose gifts extend to placing contemporary political events into historical context and he writes with precision and insight that is rare among his peers. His cover story for New York entitled “How A Presidency Ends” is certainly eye-catching, but his thesis, which is that Trump’s disregard for basic political norms and the rule of law will create a critical mass so great Republicans in Congress will eventually toss their leader overboard in order to secure their own political survival, is unrealistic.

Rich connects many dots between Nixon and Trump’s behavior. It is entirely possible that like Nixon, Trump will be undone by a cover-up (firing Jim Comey to snuff out the FBI’s investigation into Russia and potential ties to the Trump campaign) and not a crime. And there is a lot of smoke around Trump’s actions toward Comey, no more damning than the fact that two of the meetings Trump held with Comey look suspicious — the first was held the day after Acting Attorney General Sally Yates advised White House Counsel Don McGahn that Michael Flynn had been compromised and the second took place the day after Flynn resigned as National Security Adviser. In the former meeting, Trump supposedly asked for Comey’s loyalty and in the latter, that he drop the investigation into Flynn. 

But that is public record and while a few Republicans harrumphed over the timing of Comey’s dismissal, none suggested this rose to an impeachable offense. And short of evidence being produced showing Trump directing or being involved in Russia’s hacking of the DNC and Clinton Chairman John Podesta’s email accounts (a la Nixon’s recorded direction to cover-up Watergate) there is no chance a majority of Republicans in the House, much less two-thirds of Senators would remove Trump from office. 

But there is a larger divergence between Nixon and Trump that eludes Rich’s usually scrupulous eye. Trump’s crude attacks on the press are an uglier version of Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativity,” and the amen corner both he and Nixon preached to has an ingrained suspicion of and disdain for east coast elites at the New York Times and Washington Post. But unlike Nixon’s time, when right wing media was still in its embryonic phase, Trump is buttressed by a legion of genefluctors from Fox News to online Reddit trolls who protect him. 

He and his communications team have effectively neutered the White House press corps by limiting on-air press briefings, seeding the press room with more right wing voices, and keeping their boss away from anyone but sympathetic journalists in the Fox News-iverse for interviews. Trump has only conducted one solo press conference since being inaugurated and shows no signs of caring that he is stiff arming the press. When he needs to get his message out, he can always pick up the phone and call one of his preferred reporters (Bob Costa or Maggie Haberman) who will dutifully act as stenographer and put his words and thoughts on the front page of their respective papers. 

The spread of right wing media outlets also serves to discredit so-called mainstream media outlets who do themselves no favors when they have to retract salacious stories (as CNN did recently) and inoculate Trump among the faithful by throwing out red herrings like pointing out that lawyers working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller have made political donations to Democrats. They also serve to solidify antipathy toward the same elites Nixon railed against and rile up the base so they do not rest on their laurels, as Democrats did in both 2010 and 2014. 

This accrues to the benefit of Republicans on Capitol Hill. Not only is the party more conservative (and largely purged whatever moderates it once had), but state legislatures effectively gerrymandered Congressional districts in 2010 to such an extreme that in 2012, Democratic candidates in the House of Representatives won 1.2 million more overall votes than their Republican opponents yet that only translated into an eight vote swing, well short of what was needed to put Nancy Pelosi back in the Speaker’s chair. In 2016, Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump by more than 3 million votes but House Democrats only picked up six seats. 

And while it is true that there are twenty or so congressional districts that elected a House Republican while going for Hillary Clinton, voters have yet to reach a tipping point where Republican candidates have to fear being associated with Trump. Further, the 2018 Senate map is challenging for Democrats, who will probably lose a few of their 48 member caucus because unlike the apathy shown by Democrats in recent off-year elections, the few races held this year suggest Republican enthusiasm is close enough to the Democrats to protect their turf. 

And there is one other thing progressives and liberals need to be wary of. Just as right wing media has hustled conservatives with fevered dreams of faked birth certificates and nefarious dealings in backwoods Arkansas, progressives need to be attuned to, and temper, expectations that Trump’s departure from the White House will be forced. Hashtag 25th-the-45th all you want, the similarities between Watergate and whatever is going on with Trump only stretch so far. And this is not to suggest Rich is a charlatan — far from it; however, the reality is that today’s GOP is a far cry from its 1974 iteration. For all the hand wringing about Trump’s tweets, his attacks on the media, and general disdain for political norms and the rule of law, these are precisely the things his most ardent supporters like about him and unless and until Republican voters indicate they will punish their Congressional representatives for it, Trump is not going anywhere.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Review - The Only Language They Understand

Fifty years and nine U.S. Presidents after Israel crushed its Arab enemies in the Six-Day War, resolution of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is not close at hand. The corpus dissecting this dispute is already voluminous and to that pile we now add Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language The Understand a jeremiad directed largely at Israel with a central argument (Israeli and Palestinian concessions only occur under pressure from the U.S.) that is iffy at best.

Thrall’s book is an odd duck. His position that Israel must be brought to heel via heavy-handed U.S. negotiating tactics has some historical support. In 1956, 1974, 1977, and 1991, Presidents of both parties used a variety of sticks (and no carrots) to obtain Israeli compliance for everything from withdrawal after the 1956 War to opening talks in Madrid that led (indirectly) to the Oslo Accord two years later. On the other hand, Thrall laments what he sees as America’s default strategy — kowtowing to Israeli while demanding concessions from the Palestinians. At the same time, Thrall argues, Palestinian positions have weakened over time through the application of force against it (he largely dismisses the decades-long terrorist activities of groups like the PLO, PLFP, and more recently, Hamas).

For seventy or so pages, Thrall pushes his position with confidence and persuasive power. However, after laying out his argument in the book’s extended first chapter, the remainder of the book is a series of non-sequential essays previously published on a variety of topics central to the region’s long-standing dispute. Readers weave through recent battles fought in Gaza, and are taken back in time to the Oslo Accords and their aftermath. 

It is enough to give you whiplash. By the time Thrall gets back to his thesis, he undermines it entirely by pointing out a basic reality of American politics — no matter how “pro-Palestinian” an American president is perceived to be (and the right falsely castigated Obama as such throughout his eight years in office) or attempts to exert even modest pressure on the Israelis, a solid, bipartisan majority in Congress will rise to Israel’s defense. 

Short of the type of international opprobrium levied at apartheid-era South Africa that reached a critical mass in the mid-1980s (and even so, without U.S. support), there is far less leverage to exert over Israel than in the past, and that is because the Israel of 2017 is not just a military power, but an economic one as well - more technologically advanced than almost any other country on earth, exporting its ideas as well as its material across the globe, and expanding its diplomatic reach with countries and regions of the world as a backstop against possible repercussions attendant to its failure to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians. 

Moreover, one of the unintended consequences of our invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been the rise of Iran as a regional power and the resulting partnership of necessity between Israel and its Sunni neighbors. As Thrall notes, intelligence sharing between Israel and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia exists (albeit largely unspoken) as Shia Iran has extended its reach into Iraq and moved into Syria to prop up Assad.

Thrall’s bias is apparent and not hidden. If blame is to assigned, his finger invariably points to Israel. He argues that Palestinians are put in the position of sacrificing a tangible goal (statehood on most of the land Israel has occupied since 1967) for intangible concessions (the moral concession of acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state and disclaiming rights to land promised it in 1947.) However, the same argument could be made on the other side - Israel is sacrificing something tangible (land and security via the creation of a Palestinian state on either side of its borders) for something intangible (assurances that such an agreement will result in peace, and not afford Palestine the time needed to build a military to start another war.) He also gives short shrift to the variety of proposals Israeli leaders have put forward from Camp David to Taba to Annapolis only to have them rebuffed by Palestinian leadership without meaningful alternatives. 

Thrall is also unduly sympathetic toward Hamas - gliding past its terrorist activities and military tactics of kidnapping Israelis soldiers to extract bargains from Israel or its cynical placement of armaments in schools and hospitals - putting Israel in the impossible position of choosing to ignore the existence of these weapons or risk killing innocent people Hamas has put in harm’s way. That Hamas garners popular support is itself an indicator that Palestinians are uninterested in a legitimate peace deal, but Thrall has no time for moral equivalence, for him, Israel holds all the cards and thus, if not all, than certainly the lion’s share, of moral failing. 

Curiously, the reader will search The Only Language They Understand in vein for Thrall’s ideas on how to break this gridlock. And that is unsurprising. Ultimately, there is a Kabuki theater about all of this. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators know each other well and mingle and socialize behind closed doors (and off the record) when the inevitable new push for a peace deal comes from America. Their positions are as scripted as a professional wrestling match and each has incentives to feign interest in accommodation without getting any closer to a deal. For Israel, it delays any international attempts to force its hand (such as the so-called “boycott, divest, and sanctions” movement) while ensuring a steady flow of military aid and political cover from the U.S. For the Palestinian leadership, they receive sympathy in Western Europe and aid packages that forestall economic collapse. And if the feints toward compromise do not work, each side knows that they can just wait out foreign powers whose attention wanes or is diverted to other matters.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy and read Israelis-on-one-side-Palestinians-on-the-other peace proposal here: 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Book Review - Word By Word

One hundred twenty eight pages into Kory Stamper’s winning book Word by Word a footnote is dropped defining “desert” in the sense (definition) of “just deserts.” Reading this passage before bed, I wondered if I was letting my eyes droop - was this some inside joke? Did Stamper intentionally misspell “desserts” to see if readers were paying attention? Did this slip past the book’s editor? Was I missing something? Of course, I had the luxury of typing “just deserts” into Google and discovered that this idiom, which means “getting what one deserves,” dates to the 1300s and has retained its unconventional spelling even in modern day. Lesson learned. And I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who are drawn to reading about how dictionaries are produced, what lexicographers do, and how challenging a job it is to simply define a word (see above) and are inclined to look up terms like “just deserts” while reading Word by Word is a near complete circle. 

Stamper, a lexicographer (“writer of dictionaries”) with Merriam-Webster, is a wonderful guide for those who love the English language. There is, as expected, a liberal sprinkling of fifty-cent words like defenestration and foofaraw, but Kemper also leavens her writing with equal good humor and the strategically placed swear word. Although she is at pains to lament her (and her colleagues’) general introversion, she is a sharp wit whose writing leaps off the page. To take one example, Stamper recounts a disagreement she had with a co-worker regarding the definition of the word “outershell.” She had defined the word as “a protective covering.” Her co-worker edited it to read “a protective outer covering.” She protested - you do not use the word to define the word and besides, by using “covering” the implication was clear that one thing was outside the other. But, he protested, the word being defined is not “outer” but “outershell,” so the “don’t use a word to define a word” rule did not apply. Her response:

I was perturbed. “Covering,” to me, already conveys outside-ness, not inside-ness. It is covering something; there is something inside it; it is outside the thing it is covering. Q.E. Motherfucking D. (emphasis in the original)

I mean, how great is that? At another turn, she laments the cottage industry of amateur lexicographers who are trying their hand at defining words as they come into popular use. In a discussion of the word “hella,” she poo poos a t-shirt with the word and several definitions (“an excessive amount,” “large quantity,” “more than above what is necessary”) by asking rhetorically, “Dude, do you even English?” Here, the amateur was too-cute-by-half and should have stuck to hella’s colloquial usage as “very” or “extremely.” (“This is a hella good book review, Scary Lawyer Guy.” “Thanks, reader.”)

The book can feel dense at times (I got a bit lost in the chapter on phonetic pronunciation, and the granular detail on different squiggly lines used in the editorial process still eludes me) but I suspect that the self-selecting group of people who are passionate about the English language and the words that make it up will not mind. In all of this wonderful detail is the type of behind-the-scenes information that leads people to fall down rabbit holes of research into the origins of words like “posh” (apocryphally noted as an acronym for “port side out, starboard side home” to indicate first-class passage on ships of yesteryear), “cop” (constable on patrol), and “Boston marriage” (a long-term love affair between two women). 

The irony is that at a time when more words are being “created” than ever before, the industry is, like many others consumed by the Internet, if not dying, than certainly limping along. Where at one point updates were produced every few years (and truly seminal works like the Third International spawned took more than 20 years and spawned books of their own (see, The Story of A’int)), now, online dictionaries have sprouted to further reduce profit margins even as lexicographers are needed more than ever. As Stamper notes, terms like “on fleek” and “mansplaining” arose out of nowhere and quickly became integral to the lexicon (the former is credited to a sixteen-year-old who used it in a six second video in June 2014 and by November of that year 10 percent of google searches were for that term, the latter spawning its own sub-industry of “-splaining” offshoots.)

Stamper is also here to slay a few shibboleths - do feel free to end your sentences with a preposition and reconsider your knee jerk rejection of irregardless. Do you furrow your brow at the death of proper English at the hands of millennials and smart phones? Reconsider your opprobrium; OMG is found in the private letters of Winston Churchill from almost one hundred years ago. Word nerds will relish Kemper’s deft hand in parsing “phonemic” and “phonetic” in a chapter on pronunciation and experience a tinge of jealousy that jobs exist that do not require any contact or communication with other human beings (Stamper paints a picture not unlike the coding hive on Silicon Valley but instead of 1s and 0s, Stamper and her team spend their days diagraming sentences and coming up with just the right way to describe the word measly.) 

Ultimately, Stamper sums up my feeling about Word By Word better than I can. In the chapter discussing the wonderful tradition at Merriam-Webster of giving written responses to all questions posed by readers, she notes: “It’s an even rarer thing to love words and find a group of other people who not only love them as much as you do, but also know a lot about them . . .” I could not agree more.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Giants Stadium - 6/17/91

When I walked (stumbled?) out of RFK Stadium on July 12, 1990, my mind was fully blown. The three hours I had just spent having my brain bent by the Grateful Dead had far less to do with anything I inhaled or imbibed and far more to do with the sheer brilliance of their performance, capped by a near 25-minute Dark Star that left me scrambling to pick my jaw up off the ground. That show was its own capper to a near year-long run of excellence I had witnessed, from East Rutherford, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania the previous October to Landover, Maryland four short months before, the Dead were in peak form.

About two weeks later, I got a call at home from a friend of mine telling me that Brent Mydland had died. It was a body blow to every Deadhead. I immediately flashed to the prior summer’s shows at RFK, when, during I Will Take You Home the big screens zoomed in on Brent and the small photos of his two young daughters he kept nestled on his keyboard. What would happen now? 

In the pre-Internet age, information did not move at the speed of light. The musician asked to take Brent’s seat, Vince Welnick, was unknown to most of us (and you couldn’t pull up a Wikipedia page to find out more) and we had no idea someone far better known - Bruce Hornsby - had rebuffed the band’s request to join them full-time, but agreed to come on temporarily while Vince got his sea legs. 

And so it was, eight weeks after walking out of a sweltering RFK, I boogied into the Spectrum having no idea what to expect. I was less than floored, but understood Welnick was new and the pressure on him enormous. I missed the MSG shows that included Hornsby’s debut (and included two other standout performances - 9/19 and 9/20) but by the time Spring 1991 rolled around, I was dutifully impressed. The shows I saw at the Capital Center and particularly the three nights at the Omni in Atlanta, were intense, creative, and thoroughly enjoyable. That the band remade itself on the fly, with two new members occupying similar musical space, was a testament not just to the surviving five, but the new guys too. 

For me, the stage was set for what is, in my opinion, the best show of the post-Brent Mydland era - the June 17, 1991 performance at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. To borrow from Reggie Jackson, as the “straw that stirred the drink,” Garcia’s centrality to the quality (or lack thereof) of the Dead’s live performances cannot be overstated, and on this night, he was firing on all cylinders. Garcia is engaged and engaging from the show’s beginning - his graying hair blown back by stage fans, the band cozied into the first Eyes of the World show opener since 1975. It is possible this was done as a simple nod to the ABC broadcast recording being done of the show, but regardless, it is one of the band’s standout performances of this foundational tune.  

Unlike other shows where the band takes a few songs to get in gear, things click quickly. Thanks to the ABC recording you can see the band’s interactions and engagement with the music. Jerry’s appreciative nods in Bruce’s direction during Eyes are telling. Like a proud papa seeing his favored son succeed, Bruce’s touch-feel for the Dead’s music provided the band’s members - and particularly Garcia - with a newfound energy after Mydland’s passing. And unlike Welnick, Hornsby was confident in his ability to push the music. Part of what makes this show so special is Hornsby’s assertiveness. It is not just his and Garcia’s melodic interludes during Eyes, it is his playfulness with the music - Dark Star teases right before Masterpiece, Truckin’ and China Doll, his piano leads during the first set closer Might As Well landing like waves on the shore, his frisky Space jam as the band tuned up for the second set and his intuitive sense of transition deep into the second set from Truckin’ into New Speedway Boogie - separate this night from so many others of the post-Mydland era.  

And that is not to short change Welnick, who was being put in an impossible spot. On the one hand, he was being asked to replace the band’s longest-serving keyboardist while knowing he was (at best) the band’s second choice (behind Hornsby, who he had to play next to every night). On top of that, he was entering a world of incredibly devoted fans who were also unremitting in their criticism (the “Don’t Let Brent Sing” movement was well underway when I started touring with the Dead in 1987. After his passing, people came around to his talent. Go figure.) 

Even so, there were times on that sultry evening when he was given a chance to shine. Unlike Mydland’s bluesy growl, Welnick’s voice was more harmonious, and Hornsby wisely stepped back to give Vince opportunities during the stunning Saint of Circumstance second set opener to display both his musical and vocal chops.  At other points, like the extended Uncle John’s Band that closed out the first part of an equally extended second set, you can see the kernels of knowledge beginning to form, the muscle memory Vince was starting to develop, as he picks up hints of The Other One and Dark Star Garcia and Lesh flirt with during the meltdown jam that flows into the Drums segment. 

In all of this, there is clear joy and a desire for experimentation. The show stretches for almost three hours without feeling bloated. The nearly hour-long beginning to the second set comprised of Saint>Ship of Fools>Truckin’>New Speedway>Uncle John’s Band is both seamless in its transitions (Hornsby tries to goad the band into Dark Star again just prior to Truckin’ and gets about a minute’s worth of interest before the band abandons things) and well jammed without feeling indulgent. If that was not enough, the back end is equally muscular - with a rare (and eerie) China Doll rolling out of Space, followed by by Weir taking a double dip with a reprise of Playin’ in the Band and a set closing Sugar Magnolia that absolutely brings the house down. 

The Weight encore feels fitting. That song, performed with each band member taking a verse, is also in its way, an opportunity for them to take a small bow for what they had just produced. For those of us who cut our teeth watching Brent on the proverbial “hot seat,” it was also a chance to reflect on how far the band had come in the 11 months since his passing. Instead of curling into a shell, the band, as it had done so many times before, had, at least for a short time, reinvented itself and was stronger than ever. 

Of course, as I’ve noted before, that reinvention proved to be short-lived. The Fall 1991 tour, while ambitious in scope, failed to meet the high level of Giants Stadium or the other stand out performances during that summer in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Illinois and Bonner Springs, Kansas. Hornsby played his last show as an unofficial member in early 1992 and the quality tailed off as Garcia’s heroin addiction reared its head again and the band flagged. But on this night in New Jersey, that denouement was far off in the distance and the band played what may have been its greatest show of the era. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Comey's Credibility Is A Problem For Trump

Former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee set official Washington aflame. The bombshells dropped left and right, from Comey calling the sitting President of the United States a liar on multiple occasions to his intimation that the current Attorney General may have had (another) undisclosed meeting with Russian officials. With so much to unpack, it is easy to get lost in the weeds. But by the end of the day, the President’s lawyer had distilled this politically (and legally) explosive event into something much easier to understand - a “he said/he said” credibility contest between Comey and Trump as it relates to the question of whether Trump asked Comey to end his investigation into the activities of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

And it is easy to understand why this matters. If it can be proven that the President directed Comey to end the investigation, it would be a clear case of obstruction of justice that any first-year law student could prosecute. Republican partisans have chosen to make two arguments - first, that Trump did not “order” Comey to end the investigation, just that he “hoped” he would end it; and second, (and this is the excuse used by Paul Ryan) that Trump is simply naive about the ways of Washington and politics and did not understand the gravity of what he was doing. No big deal, no harm, no foul.

But here is the thing. This is not a “he said/he said” situation where it is simply one person’s word against another’s. The public record we have indicates that the conversation in question, which happened the day after Flynn resigned, happened only after Trump cleared the room of his Vice President, his Chief of Staff, his son-in-law (who is also his adviser), and the Attorney General. Hardly the type of action of a babe in the woods but definitely the type of action of someone who would not want anyone else to able to corroborate what happened behind closed doors. 

Further, Trump may not have expected Comey to create a contemporaneous record of that meeting, but Comey did. That is very significant because contemporaneous notes are considered so credible, they can be admitted into evidence as an exception from the hearsay rule. (See, FRE 803). In other words, a contemporaneous memo written by someone at the time or immediately after an event occurs that describes that event is considered so reliable it is admissible in court to prove the truth of the matter asserted therein. 

But it is not just Comey’s testimony about that meeting or his memo that should be considered. As he stated before the Senate, he also shared the subject matter of his conversations with the President with at least five of his closest aides, including his Deputy Director and Chief of Staff. All of those men (and they are all men, which is another story for another time) could (and should) be called to testify about what Comey told them.

On top of all this is the context in which Trump's meetings with Comey took place. Sally Yates testified before Congress that she warned White House Counsel Don McGahn on January 26th that Michael Flynn had been compromised by the Russians. Less than 24 hours later, Trump had a private dinner with Comey where he (Trump) attempted to extract a "loyalty" pledge from Comey (according to Comey). Flynn resigned on February 13th. Trump's one-on-one with Comey, the meeting where Trump sent out everyone else from the room and asked Comey to drop the investigation occurred, you guessed it, less than 24 hours later - on February 14th.

The near-contemporaneous connection between disclosures about Flynn and his resignation and Trump's meetings with the man investigating those indiscretions belies the idea that Trump is some naive newcomer unversed in the ways of Washington. The temporal connection also suggests motive - we don't know (yet) whether McGahn shared what Yates told him with Trump, but it is hard to imagine a White House Counsel keeping such information to himself. Assuming McGahn shared what Yates told him with Trump, the idea of his asking Comey for "loyalty" does not seem far fetched. Similarly, once Flynn was turfed out (purportedly for lying to the Vice President about his meetings with Russian officials) it is not hard to connect that dot to a request by Trump to drop any further investigation into Flynn - the poor guy had suffered enough <eye roll>. 

On top of Comey’s testimony, his memos, and the statements he made to his senior advisors and aides is reporting by the Washington Post that Trump asked Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, and Admiral Michael Rogers, the Director of the National Security Agency, to speak with Comey about scuttling the Flynn investigation. Neither Coats nor Rogers would answer questions posed by Senators about the veracity of the reporting, but importantly, the Post reporting indicates that Coats shared the substance of his conversation with Trump with his own aides and Rogers created a written record. Coats’s aides should be called to testify and Rogers’s memo subpoenaed. 

And if all of that was not enough, of course you have the coup de grậce - Trump fired Comey and then went on national television and said the reason for the firing was the FBI’s continued investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. 

The idea that Trump simply expressed a “hope” to Comey that the case could be closed is belied by the extensive after-the-fact action Trump took with Coats, with Rogers, and ultimately, in firing Comey when he refused to stand down. And against that mountain of evidence that Trump sought an end to the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn - which is itself a greater interference in a criminal investigation than what the House of Representatives deemed obstruction of justice during Watergate - you have a man who settled a fraud case less than a week before he was sworn into office, has been sued thousands to times, and whose lies are so voluminous reporters have tallied hundreds in the less than six months he has been in office. All Trump has is his oft-repeated phrase “believe me.” Believe him? Hardly.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

This Article Will Not Help You Lose Weight

There are few public health topics about which more has been written to less effect than dieting and weight loss. We are told to go low carb, low fat, to drink smoothies the color of radiator fluid or cleanse our bodies with all cabbage diets. There are books about eating like the French, or like those who live along the Mediterranean, or even our cave-dwelling ancestors. Nothing seems to work. Indeed, the recent TIME cover story “The Weight Loss Trap” notes that nearly 40 percent of adults in America are clinically obese.

The number is alarming and unsurprising. Like people who focus on their wedding day and not the marriage that follows, people who concentrate on dieting and weight loss are putting their energy in the wrong place. The object should be eating a healthier diet and exercising regularly. Whether or not that results in reaching some mythical “goal” weight is beside the point of the many other benefits that accrue from this simple (but hard to follow) strategy. 

As the article notes, even as greater attention has been paid to dieting, the number of obese Americans has nearly tripled in the last twenty-five years. How is that possible? How is it that a subject for which more information than one could read in ten lifetimes is available, a $66 billion a year industry has sprouted and nearly $1 billion was spent last year at the NIH alone for obesity research, give us a country that is fatter and unhealthier than ever? 

The article’s central thesis is that medical research has evolved into a consensus that there is no “one size fits all” strategy for weight loss - what works for some people might not work for others. And to her credit, the author, Alexandra Sifferin, points out several of the challenges anyone faces - that as you lose weight your metabolism slows, making it harder to continue to shed pounds, and that most people who lose weight regain it over time. 

But in highlighting the obstacles, I thought the article could also be read by those attempting to lose weight as an excuse for their lack of success. For example, Sifferin cites one researcher who found that “biology,” and not merely a lack of willpower, may stymie your attempts at weight loss. That may have some truth, but if you are gorging on high fat desserts, burying your face in a bag of potato chips, or getting little to no exercise, I cannot accept that “biology” is the culprit. 

Sifferin also frames her story around extreme dieting as seen on reality TV (the article singles out The Biggest Loser) as offering an unrealistic view of weight loss. I could not agree more. If you lock away overweight people whose time is meticulously gauged by a staff of experts in exercise and nutrition and remove all their other daily responsibilities, of course they will lose weight. If you stick a bunch of singles in a mansion for a few weeks with all-expenses-paid dates, they might think relationships are easy too - TV is not reality. But why bother stating the obvious? 

Of more concern was the seeming contradiction in the author’s narrative. At one point she notes “that exercise, while critical to good health, is not an especially reliable way to keep off body fat over the long term.” Later, Sifferin discusses people who have successfully maintained weight loss over the long run, writing: “another through line: 94% increased their physical activity, and the most popular form of exercise was walking.” Huh? 

The author’s dig at “fancy gym memberships” also seems misplaced. It always baffled me that people will shell out $150 or $200 or more a month for something like cable tv (which, by the way, encourages laziness and yes, weight gain) but clutch pearls at a gym membership of $50, $75, or even $100 a month (which, by the way, encourages good health). Sifferin may mock fancy gym memberships, but for those (like me) who use theirs to take advantage of the cardiovascular and weight training such facilities make available, it is money incredibly well spent.

Unfortunately, the good advice is buried and may be missed by readers. For example, encouraging a healthy lifestyle over weight loss goals and that sustainable weight loss occurs over a long period of time and not without fits and starts along the way are two critical ideas that I suspect make a lot of people throw their hands up in despair. I have always thought that was the dirty little secret of all of this - it’s actually not as complicated as the diet industry would have you believe, it’s actually much simpler but harder to sustain - drinking water instead of soda, a sugar-laden “sports drink,” beer, wine, or liquor is boring, portion control is hard, exercising regularly takes discipline and that is before factoring in all the stressors of life. 

Weight loss should be viewed as an ancillary benefit to deeper, harder life changes, but because we like the quick fix over the long-term solution, the fact that the divorce rate and the percentage of adults who are obese are both stratospheric makes total sense.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Ms. Sifferin’s article can be found at:

My own experiences with exercise, fitness and healthier living can be found at:

Friday, June 2, 2017

Chris Cillizza Makes Me Want To Gargle Bleach

I am not a fan of Chris Cillizza. He wrote one of the worst books I have ever read about politics (and I’ve read quite a few); I once called him out on Twitter and his response was basically “I write a blog.” Some time later, he blocked me. Of course, my opinion of Cillizza is meaningless - he has (for reasons unclear to me) become a successful journalist, first, at the Washington Post and was recently poached by CNN where he gets paid what I assume is a healthy mid six-figure salary to write columns like this:

But that is the reality of all political campaigns. Stuff happens. Good luck and bad breaks occur. Circumstances totally out of a candidate’s control often decide — or heavily influence — how voters make up their minds. Here’s one example: Clinton’s private email server had absolutely nothing to do with the email hack via WikiLeaks. But the two issues — both of which dealt with email — got conflated as one issue in the minds of lots and lots of voters. And there as nothing Clinton could do about it.

The truth of the matter is this: Hillary Clinton’s name was at the top of the campaign and signed on the checks her staff received. It was her decision to set up a private email server and exclusively use it for her communications as secretary of state — the first person in her position to do that.

Cillizza then goes on at some length about all of Hillary’s failings as a candidate. But here is the thing - saying “stuff happens” as a way to minimize … pick your poison (1) Jim Comey going against DOJ protocols and sending a letter to Congress 11 days before the election based on incomplete information; (2) a foreign nation’s overt attempts to influence our election via cyber espionage; and/or (3) the Trump campaign’s (possible) collaboration with those efforts is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst - there is no corollary, no modern historical precedent to compare these actions to. This is not a “bad break” like a good (or bad) unemployment number a few days before the election, these were intentional acts be persons (and a country) to tilt the election.

Which brings me to the second point and the one that really grinds my gears. Cillizza correctly notes that Hillary’s use of a personal email server and the WikiLeaks hack had nothing to do with each other but then he says they “got conflated as one issue in the minds of lots and lots of people.” This is the classic media dodge that omits its role in putting that idea in the minds of voters. I am not sure why “the media” is so reluctant to acknowledge its role in making both the email server and WikiLeaks bigger stories than they should have, but the idea that this conflation took place magically, without any doing by people like Cillizza is a blatant lie. 

And even if you accept that the email server was a legitimate topic for the media to cover, the extent of the coverage far outstripped the importance of it - no charges were filed, the State Department’s Inspector General acknowledged she did not violate State Department protocol and, by the way, more than 90 other senior level officials utilized private email accounts (including Colin Powell and senior aides to Condoleezza Rice). The perception that the email server story showed Hillary to be untrustworthy was a media creation, not one based on the facts of the matter. As for WikiLeaks, on this account the media’s refusal to admit its role in disseminating information they knew to be stolen by the Russians and (likely) being published to harm Clinton is both baffling and shameless. The stolen email were published in earnest right after the final debate and continued on right up to Comey's letter to Congress. The idea these things did not harm Hillary have been debunked by people like Nate Silver and are not "stuff" that candidates have ever had to deal with before. 

Any losing campaign for President is flawed - but so is every winning campaign. Perfection rarely (if ever) happens, but Cillizza’s dismissiveness of the forces that aligned against Clinton as mere “stuff happens” and his failure to acknowledge the media’s role in getting voters to think “Clinton + email = scandal” is the real scandal.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

And do read Cillizza’s full column and draw your own opinions. It can be found here:

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The High Line

Four years ago, after spending Mother’s Day in New York City, my girlfriend at the time (a native New Yorker) asked me where I wanted to go the next time we visited. “The High Line” I said, without hesitating. “Too touristy,” she, a child who rode the subways when they were graffiti laden and went to Times Square when it was still home to porno shops, sniffed. We broke up a few weeks later (not for that reason), but today, I finally made it to what has become one of the most recognizable landmarks in Manhattan less than ten years after its completion (no small feat).

Special Lady Friend was right - the High Line is touristy, but simply because a seemingly never-ending parade of Europeans (easy to spot as Brooklyn hipsters with slightly better clothing) and middle Americans (the I ♥️ NY t-shirts are a dead giveaway) cycle through the roughly 1.5 miles of what was once an abandoned railroad line and is now an urban park, does not mean it is not also really cool. Where else could you see a couple getting married at 8:45 in the morning while 50 feet away, a yoga class was taking place in a studio with floor to ceiling windows?

I can see why the High Line engenders strong feelings - at its origination point the new Whitney Museum, garish, modern, and impossible to miss, stands in an area that was once synonymous with urban decay. The meatpacking district is now home to multi-million dollar condominiums and the entire pier is being transformed. For those (like my ex) who remember a tougher time in New York City, the era captured in movies like Taxi Driver, The Warriors, and Fort Apache: The Bronx, it can be difficult to get their heads around an expensive urban redevelopment project underwritten by well-heeled philanthropists whose names are honored throughout the park. 

But here is the thing. It is impossible not to be charmed by the High Line. It is the perfect execution of a simple concept completed with impeccable precision. From the slick website that posts events, performances, and things to do, to the manicured gardens bursting with color, you wonder how the High Line ever did not exist. It is not just how smart it was to take an abandoned area and repurpose it for a public good, but by making it so accessible (multiple entry and exit points) and interactive (the views are uniformly outstanding and also anachronistic, as in the seating area around 18th Street that allows for a view straight down 10th Avenue that makes you feel like you’re watching television) the High Line draws you in completely.

As the photos below show, the flora and fauna are a delight, photogenic and demanding attention, but the architecture of the area is also honored - the High Line snakes through, under, and is adjacent to the many buildings that arose before its construction and now, the many that are popping up in its wake. And there are SO MANY BUILDINGS going up. The entire length of the High Line is awash in construction - residential, commercial, the entire skyline on the West Side of Lower Manhattan has and is being transformed thanks to this visionary project. 

This is the bone that many traditionalists pick. After all, what was once home to shooting galleries and a lively after hours club scene has made way for high rises and waterfront driving ranges. And while I certainly get that argument, it is a windmill that people must be tiring of tilting at. After all, a Whole Foods has arisen along the Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn long ago became the poster child for gentrification. 

If there is a criticism to levy at the High Line, it is that the designers may not have had enough faith in their creation. Instead of drafting a plan that could accommodate huge crowds, the walking paths are narrow - one lane in each direction through most of the park - which can make the experience feel a bit like moving along a conveyor belt; however, this is tempered (in part) by the spacious seating areas that jut out like little culs de sac along the way. 

And for those who say the High Line and all the redevelopment that has sprouted around it has ruined the grittier vibe, not 50 feet from the 14th Street entrance, I saw a homeless woman writhing on the sidewalk. She was either having a seizure or an orgasm, so not all is lost. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Dumbest Thing Politico Has Ever Published

Politico has been derided as “Teen Beat on the Potomac,” a journalistic virus that has infected reporting by emphasizing controversy and gossip, with a splash of tabloid and less concern for hard news. And while Politico does churn out some decent reporting, its main claim to fame is Playbook, the daily tip sheet started by Mike Allen and now written by Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman, whose mission is to “drive the day” of political news coverage in the nation’s capital.

One part news aggregator and one part political analysis, Allen did not pioneer this idea, but he did perfect it; however, with his departure to Axios, and the emergence of other like products such as James Hohmann’s Daily 202 (The Washington Post), Playbook has faltered. A perfect example comes from today’s (May 16, 2017) edition. Palmer and Sherman offer this “quick thought”

You do get the sense that Trump has a decent chance for some sort of peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Of course, we should all be skeptical of solving one of the most intractable cycles of tension and violence ever. But in the last few weeks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has signaled openness, and behind the scenes, Trump officials - and even some longtime Obama officials - have been surprised at the positive body language on the two sides.

Here, in one paragraph is everything that is wrong with modern-day political journalism. A story that is thinly sourced (anonymous current/former Administration officials), whose main source of evidence (body language) is as reliable as phrenology, drawing a conclusion (decent chance) about one of the hardest foreign policy challenges of modern history (peace between the Israelis and Palestinians), written by two reporters who were not even born when Jimmy Carter helped broker the peace deal between Israel and Egypt. 

It is no small feat to cram so much bad reporting into one paragraph, but Palmer and Sherman manage to do it. You would hope that an editor somewhere up the food chain at Politico would have had the good sense to squash a story like this, but in today’s media environment, that would be asking for way too much. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy